To the surprise of pretty much nobody, either in the University or outside, my University has become the latest to announce that undergraduate tuition fees will rise to the full £ 9000 a year from 2012.
[Formal announcement from the Univ, noting that the higher fees will be combined with fee waiver and bursary schemes, and more outreach work, is here]
The fee announcement was widely anticipated, mainly because most people in the research-intensive English Universities predicted as soon as the Goverment’s announcements on fees were made back in the Autumn that all the “prestige” Universities would charge the maximum permissible £ 9000 across the board. For instance, I wrote in a comment somewhere back at the beginning of November:
“Though the Russell Group’s* statement does not say anything specific, one assumes their default position is likely to be to charge £ 9K across the board. At least, that would be my prediction.”
[*For non-UK readers, the Russell Group is made up of research-intensive, often older, UK Universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, Imperial, UCL, and most of the large “civic” Universities located in the UK’s major cities]
William Cullerne Bown over at Research Blogs (formerly named Exquisite Life) has a good analysis on “forecasting fees”. As he notes, the main question is really how many (or more likely how few) Universities in England will charge less than £ 9K per annum.
[Research Blogs are updating their list as more Universities announce their fee levels – latest version here. So far they are predicting that at least half the UK’s Universities will be setting their fees at the £ 9K maximum.]
The unspoken question is what will happen to student recruitment, and student numbers, once the fees go up. Of course, this is likely to be a question that “bites” differently in different institutions, and in different subjects. High end institutions, whose degree courses are harder to get onto, and whose degrees are valued higher by graduate recruitment for higher-paying careers, would clearly be predicted to face less fall-off in student numbers than institutions lower down the pecking order.
The next question is how the effects of fees will pan out across the subject spectrum. Scientists obviously wonder foremost about the sciences.
One argument is that numbers wanting degrees in sciences will be predicted to hold up better, since science degrees are seen to be more likely to lead to acceptably paid employment.
I wonder. In the biosciences, one could argue that job prospects in England look less than rosy at the moment. With the recent spate of announcements of cut-backs and redundancies in UK-based Pharma, scientific research jobs in the UK are on a clear downturn. The lack of real-terms growth in the research budget also means there are hardly going to be more jobs for graduate and postdoc researchers over the next few years.
In this context, Research Blogs also carries a sobering analysis of yesterday’s UK budget and the Government’s plans. Their take is that, for all the mentions of science, there is little or nothing concrete to make scientists more cheerful.
“So now that we have a more complete picture of the new government’s approach to science and technology, what we can say is that it almost certainly involves substantial cuts in spending at all stages. And whatever the short-term pressures, it is telling that there is no commitment to return to hi-tech support when the squeeze ends, no sign of the long-term support for science that the Royal Society and others have been arguing for.”
Now it may be true that, overall, UK job prospects for people with scientific and numeracy skills will still remain better than for graduates in other disciplines, whatever the particular fate of the research sector. But that cannot really disguise the fact that, for most non-vocational degrees including scientific ones, graduate jobs are going to be harder to come by as the UK struggles to emerge from recession. And pay in many of the jobs that are around is likely to be frozen, and thus declining in real terms in the face of rising inflation. So is it worth paying a lot of money to go to University if it is evidently less likely to lead to an adequately paid job than hitherto? Who will want to take on all that debt to become a nurse, for instance? Or a science teacher? Or an academic?!
Talking of student numbers generally, I reckon a fair number of academics in the UK might agree with the sentiment one hears expressed here and there that too many people currently go to University. We have essentially doubled entry to every science degree course we run in the last 15 years, as well as inventing degrees where previously there were none. The latter has often occurred by the “graduatizing” of previously largely non-graduate jobs – e.g. this year at my University we admitted 300 or so students onto our Bachelor of Nursing degree, see above, which did not exist ten yrs ago. But the number of students going to University is essentially a political decision in the UK. It has never really been in the Universities’ hands.
Of course, that might change. It is interesting to note that one of the things the UK Govt has been wholly silent on thus far (at least as far as I have heard) is just how many places they are prepared to fund for those courses where they are still going to supply some of the teaching costs, e.g. in the sciences, or in medicine. There has been much talk on fees, but on student numbers… zip.
Finally, for people that work in Universities, students through the doors, and student fees in the bank, will mean jobs. The unfairness of a system that will mean those of us who went to University essentially for free will now be teaching students paying upwards of ten grand a year, is not lost on anyone. But of course, people who work in Universities have bills to pay too. The general unhappiness with this state of affairs is one of the underlying threads of today’s industrial action by University academics in the UK.
Anyway, amid the uncertainties that remain, we can agree on one thing. Going to University in England is going to be much, much more expensive for students, and for their families. How that will change the Universities remains to be seen.